Can Horses Be Happy With A Job?

From time to time I get asked if I think horses can enjoy work. It’s a tough one to answer because so much of the time I believe I see unhappy horses. In fact, it is so common to see horses that one would say are unhappy in their work that it is easy to assume that happiness and working with people would appear to be incompatible.


Even if we see a horse that appears not to be unhappy, can I say it is happy?


But before I get onto the idea that horses can be happy in their work, the question makes an assumption that people have been debating about for a very long time – centuries, in fact. Can a horse ever experience happiness? Does a horse have the capacity to feel happy?


A few years ago I was on my way to visit a neighbour by cutting through our paddocks. My eye caught the curious sight of my neighbour’s racehorse reaching for a lead rope hanging on a wooden rail. I watched as the horse began to fling the rope by tossing his neck in a circle. Very soon the rope started to twirl a circle in the air. This continued for perhaps a minute before the horse dropped the rope on the ground and walked away. The horse spent a couple of minutes picking at grass before returning to once again pick up the rope in its teeth and commence to twirl it in the same perfect circle before dropping it once more. I was so transfixed by this act that I hung around to watch the horse repeat the exercise several times.


This was the first time I can recall watching a horse do something out of the ordinary just for fun. The horse had not been taught this as a trick. There was nobody around to give the horse a reward for its performance. This was a racehorse that had no training out of strict race training, so I knew it had not been taught to pick up a rope. It appeared that the motive for this horse’s behaviour was simply the joy it felt at being able to twirl a rope in a perfect circle. I can’t think of a better explanation for the rope twirling other than it made the horse happy.


In another example of self-inspired fun, my horse Luke was moved into a paddock with about 25 cows and steers. Luke had never been with cows before and had certainly never worked with them – his training was in dressage and jumping. One day I watched from the house as Luke put all the bovines in one corner of the paddock. Then he selected one particular cow, chased it to the bottom end of the paddock and steered in a very precise pattern around a group of trees. He then allowed the cow to return to the mob in the corner and selected another victim to repeat the exact same pattern. This went on for sometime until almost half the herd had taken their turn. I can only assume Luke gave up this game when he became tired or bored. There was nothing in Luke’s training or past to suspect this was a learned behaviour. There was no reward at the end of the game to motivate his behaviour other than the sense of enjoyment he received from the act itself.


When you think about it, the idea that horses can exhibit behaviours just for the fun of it should not surprise us. We don’t question it when a dog plays with a stick or a cat taunts a mouse without eating it. We accept they are showing behaviours that they are neurologically wired to perform and have fun doing them.


Behaviourists with a neuroscience bent may offer different explanations for Luke chasing a cow or my friend’s horse twirling a rope, but it does not seem too implausible that a horse can exhibit a behaviour purely motivated by the experience of having fun.


So if we accept that a horse can do something and feel happiness, is it possible to experience those emotions when we are directing the behaviour? Can a horse have fun when we ride?


People often assume that horses love chasing cows or that showjumpers love to jump or pleasure horses love to head out on the trail. I’m not going to argue for or against these notions because people will argue both sides of the coin when it comes to their own experience with their own horse. What I will offer are some thoughts on the pre-requisite that I believe must be in place if a horse is to find happiness in his work.


I have already suggested that the times I have seen horses really performing for the fun of it are when it came from them. I didn’t tell Luke to chase those cows or how to do it. nor did I instruct the racehorse to twirl a rope. Those behaviours derived from inside those horses. This suggests to me that for a horse to truly enjoy its work , it must feel like it came from inside and not from pure obedience.


If we impose a response or behaviour on a horse, I have serious doubts that a horse could ever feel happy about it. This comes back to the age-old adage that we should help our idea be the horse’s idea. Pointing a horse to a cow to a horse that enjoys moving cows could be fun for the horse, but doing the same thing to a horse that is not interested in cows or wants to be somewhere else (like its home paddock) can never be a joyful experience.


The second consideration I would offer is that there is a difference between a horse not being troubled by a job and finding happiness in that job. Most of us (including myself) strive to help a horse not be bothered when we ask something of it. That means training to high levels of focus, clarity and softness. This takes the trouble out of the work and introduces the okay-ness in our relationship. I think that’s as much as any of us can expect in most of the work we do with a horse and is worthy enough in itself.


But to add happiness to the work is a very different phenomenon that requires finding the jobs that your particular horse enjoys. Not every horse enjoys every job. I would even go so far to say that not every horse can ever be okay being around humans. If we want our horse to be happy, we need to find what job or discipline it feels happiest doing.


When somebody says their horse loves jumping or dressage or cow work the questions that needs to be asked before making such an assumption are (i) is my idea and the horse’s idea to perform a job the same idea or do I impose my will on my horse, and (ii) am I asking my horse to perform a job it is comfortable doing? This is the starting point before we can decide whether or not a horse enjoys its job.


The bottom line is that I believe horses can experience joy or fun or happiness, but whether they can experience it when working with us is entirely dependent of us.


Video: This is the annual horse race in Siena, Italy from 2016. Do you think th


Calming A Horse That Gets Scared Or Panicked


How can I keep my horse calm when he is panicked?



Much of the answer depends on what we mean by "panic". For me, a horse that is panicking is not able to engage its mind and is acting purely out of blind fear. In this case, there is nothing to be done until the panic subsides and the horse can engage its mind again. The best thing to do is stay out of the way of the horse and hopes it does not run off a cliff.


However, I suspect the question is really referring to a horse that is exhibiting a strong fear where it is still possible to communicate with a horse, but the behaviour is potentially dangerous. In this scenario, a rider has to know the limits of their ability to help a horse.


It’s not enough to be able to sit on a horse through bad behaviour. A rider’s job is to help turn a bad ordeal into an okay one – otherwise, there is no positive learning experience for the horse. In order to help a horse through a fearful event, the horse needs to feel the trigger that initiated the anxiety has either been removed or diminished. For example, if a horse is frightened by the sudden appearance of a kangaroo, putting some distance between the horse and the kangaroo will help reduce the fear behaviour. Later, when the horse’s emotions are calmer, a horse can learn to be okay with kangaroos using controlled training situations.


However in my experience, what most people deem as a fear response to an object or event is often not what it really appears. For example, a horse that shies and spins at a stump is generally not really worried about the stump. Horses see stumps all the time and seeing one on the trail is not usually the cause of shying. The fear comes from the worry of being away from home or an inability to stay focused on the rider or separation from other horses etc. The common thread is usually that the horse’s mind is flying around like a balloon on a windy day and does not focus on the connection with the rider. It is constantly on the lookout for something that might get it killed instead of mentally checking in with the rider. Shying at a stump is just a symptom of a much larger problem of a lack of focus. I believe this is the source of most people’s problem.


The solution is the rider’s awareness of when a horse is focused and when it is not. When a horse loses mental connection with the rider, the rider’s job is to give the horse a reason to connect again. This means interrupting the horse when it takes an interest in something else by asking it to perform a task that requires it to pay attention. Don’t ask the horse to do something it can do in its sleep, but give it a job that requires a mental effort. It is more important that a mental effort is made rather than a physical effort because the fear behaviour is the result of a mental/emotional problem, not a physical one. Despite what some trainers will say, getting to a horse’s feet is far less important than getting a change in its thoughts.


If a rider can be vigilant and consistent with directing a horse’s thoughts and concentration, dealing with a panic is rarely an issue. It’s better to fix the problem before it begins than when you are in the middle of it. If a rider can build a stronger mental connection with a horse, they are fixing the cause of the panic behaviour. If they wait until the horse is already having an emotional meltdown, they are just trying to control the symptoms.


Clinic Update - Montana

The Right Trainer

I was asked to re-post this article I wrote from last year about what I look for when deciding if I like a trainer or not. I hope it helps some people re-examine their love of the trainers that are all show and look for those that are sincere in their horsemanship.


I try to watch as many horse people working with horses as my busy life permits. In particular, I am always interested in observing other professionals to see what they do that maybe I could adopt or do better. I’m always on the look out for good ideas that could make me a better horseman.


Add to that I am regularly asked for my opinion on the horsemanship of other horse people. “What do you think of so and so?” and “Who do you think I should get help from?” or “Isn’t so and so brilliant, what do you think?” are very common questions I get.


Most times I know at least a bit about the people being referred to, sometimes I know a lot but sometimes I am not familiar with the name at all.


Before I talk about the topic I want to discuss, I want to say something about the political correctness of giving an opinion on someone’s horsemanship skills.


Despite being criticized from time to time for giving my honest opinion, I will continue to give my honest opinion. I believe the importance of this is beyond the niceties of the old adage “if you can’t say anything nice about somebody, you shouldn’t say anything at all.” I feel that is a nonsense view that does nothing to help horses or the horse owners that ask for my opinion. I am more interested in the welfare of horses than I am in the courtesy of being supportive of people whom I think work in a way that does not benefit horses. Nevertheless, I always try to be polite and respectful and fully explain the reasons behind any appraisal I make.


I have said before on this page that I believe it is a responsibility of professional horse people to openly and politely discuss the methods and philosophy of each other so that the students who are looking for guidance can examine the pros and cons of each trainer or clinician. I don’t believe a polite “no comment” helps anybody – particularly the novice horse owner.


This is why I don’t censor different views and criticisms of my work on this page – as long as the comments are polite and respectful. Yet, I keep coming across other professionals who have a strict policy of deleting dissenting comments and banning those who make them.


So having made that clear, what I really want to talk about is what I look for when I am weighing up the quality of a person’s horse work.


It is my experience that many people get caught up in the hoopla of trainer’s presentation that they don’t see the real quality of the horsemanship behind the smoke and mirrors. Things like clever catch phrases, humorous presentations, a gift of the gab, wow-factor horse tricks, polished videos, long list of competition ribbons and awards etc, contribute a great deal to how we perceive a person’s horsemanship. The glitz, the tricks, and the smooth talk are so up front and attractive, that we often fail to see the emotional state of the horse behind it. It takes a lot of self-discipline to put that stuff aside and focus on how the horse is doing.


The person who can stand on the back of his horse and start a chainsaw attracts a lot more attention than the person who can inspire a nice soft trot from their horse. The person who can be riding an unbroken horse in 2 hrs gets a lot more cheers than the person who has a horse happy to see him when he walks into the paddock. And the person who can train a horse to perform high-level movements after 4 months of training attracts a lot more students than the person whose horse will softly lower its head to accept the halter.


It is the nature of people that we are impressed by the glaringly obvious and miss the brilliance of the subtle things.


Now back to what I look for when I am watching another horse person working.


The first thing I look for is how the trainer approaches a horse for the first time. I want to know if they adjust their approach and touch for what the horse is feeling in an effort to help the horse feel more comfortable. That tells me how much they care about the horse in front of them.


The second thing is perhaps the most important and I feel speaks volumes about the kind of horse person I am watching. When a trainer asks a horse to do something I look to see if they start by trying to direct the horse’s thought or do they immediately begin by driving the horse? If they start by driving the horse, I am almost immediately turned off. I don’t mind if they try to initially direct the horse and then find they have to drive them. But if they begin by driving the horse; it is an immediate loss of 100 points of credit. They would have to be pretty bloody amazing in everything else they do to make up for the crime of going directly to driving horses.


(As an aside for those that don’t know the difference between directing and driving a horse, directing is sending a horse towards where it is thinking and driving is sending a horse away from where it is thinking. More information is in my book “The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.)


This thing about first directing a horse’s thought is fundamental as to whether a person is the kind of trainer who is only concerned with a horse being mindlessly obedient or whether they are interested in a horse willingly following an idea the trainer presents.


The classic example of this can be seen at clinics and on groundwork videos when a trainer asks a horse to lunge around them on a circle. Trainers who begin by approaching a horse while at the same time spinning the tail end of the lead rope or slapping their leg or waving the coils of a lariat etc are missing the part about working co-operatively with the thoughts of a horse.


However, let me be clear, I am not saying that it is wrong to drive a horse if a horse does not understand how to respond when you try to direct its thought. But starting by driving a horse speaks volumes about whether a person sees a horse as a slave or a friend.


The third important thing that I look for when watching another professional horse person is how much they understand about why they do what they do. I believe a person needs a clear and rational understanding of the things they want a horse to understand. If the explanation does not stand up to critical scrutiny then I can’t see the point and I question the credentials of the person doing the teaching.


Take for example the exercise of lateral flexion, where a horse is expected to stand still while a rider uses the reins to flex the neck left and right. I have seen this hundreds (maybe thousands) of times and have asked the question “why” nearly as often. I have never received a logical explanation from anybody that made sense to the horses or me. Yet it is an almost universal exercise.


To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “If a person cannot correctly explain a concept in simple language then they do not understand their subject well enough.”


There are other aspects of a person’s horse work that can influence my view of them, but I consider the three elements I have mentioned form the basis by which I judge the horsemanship of everybody I come across. You may have your own set of criteria that differs from mine, but whatever they are, I urge you to utilize them with everybody you see working a horse.

The Rein Back

Approximately ninety percent of horses that attend my clinics for the first time do not rein back well. They usually lean on the reins, lock up their hindquarters, swing their hindquarters to one side or the other, have a 3 or 4 beat footfall, rush backward, throw their head and hollow their back or some combination of any of those things.


It is thought by some folk that training a horse to back up too early will damage the forward response and confuse a horse. But this has never been my experience. I suspect that the anti-backing brigade is fixated on the idea that a young horse can’t differentiate between the exercise of going forward and going backward until one of those exercises is firstly confirmed solidly in a horse’s mind. However, I feel this notion is rooted in misconceptions.


Firstly, the movement of backing is just as natural to a horse as going forward. It is not foreign, as some people believe. If you have ever seen a horse backing in order to kick another horse, you’ll know they can do it easily and at lightning speed. I’m not saying it is as easy a movement as forward is for a horse because their hocks make backing a more clumsy maneuver. But nonetheless, backing up is not something horses find foreign or worry about when it is their idea.


I believe those who train cues rather than concepts are generally the most ardent, diehard opponents of backing horses in early training. It appears to derive from believing that training is about moving a horse’s feet. [Regular readers will know that the idea that training is about moving the feet of a horse is a pet peeve of mine and in my view one of the biggest roadblocks to building okay-ness in horses.]


In this discussion, I am going to concentrate on the process of teaching a horse to back while under saddle for the purposes of this article because it brings up a couple of subjects that I want to discuss.


My approach when teaching a horse to back up is to rely almost exclusively on the use of the reins. I introduce my seat as a precursor to backing a horse by tilting my pelvis back so that my seat bones roll to a slightly flatter position. Now a young horse won’t know why I did this or what he/she should do about it, but I do it anyway as my first polite attempt at directing a horse to prepare to back up. If I am consistent, one day the adjustment of my seat will be a clear signal to a horse to prepare its body to move backward. But please note that I DO NOT sit with the leaning back slouch and my legs pushed forward of my hips, like so many riders do. Without a doubt, this inhibits the free movement of the horse.


I follow tilting of my pelvis with an application of feel in both reins. The pressure is steady and not pulsing, as some people attempt to do. The amount of feel or weight of my reins is the bare minimum I sense is enough to inspire a horse to search for a relief from the pressure. As long as a horse is searching for the correct response, the pressure is steady while the horse tries various options. If there is an over reaction, I remove the pressure and being again with about half the amount of pressure. If the horse does not seem interested in seeking relief from the reins, I will increase the feel in my reins and then wait for a try.


At this stage, I am not looking for softness or correctness or a 2 beat footfall. I may not even care if my horse moves a foot back. At this very early stage, I am looking for a ‘letting go’ of the thought to push forward. This is the very beginning of teaching a horse to back up – a change of thought to stop pushing forward. A lot of horses will back their feet and still be mentally pushing forward. Some do this all their lives. But I want to establish very early that my aids are there to induce a change of thought first and foremost because this will lead to focus and softness, as clarity becomes established.


I keep building on this concept of holding until a horse has a change of thought. As it becomes clear to the horse that when I pick up both reins it should stop thinking forward, it is only a small step to creating a backward thought. This then leads to the feet moving back of the horse’s own will and not from being pushed back by the reins.


Now we have come to the next point where I differ quite a lot from my peers. When the horse begins to respond with a backup, many trainers will apply their legs to create more energy in the horse’s feet. I don’t encourage this use of the rider’s legs until much later and here’s why.


In very early training, the most important job of the rider’s legs is to implant the concept of ‘forwardness’ in a horse’s mind. I don’t believe the rider’s leg should be directing a horse’s mind to do anything but think forward. It is not until this role of the legs is well established will I use my legs for anything else. I don’t use my legs for directing lateral movement or backward movement in early training. This becomes the role of the reins – which I have discussed in previous posts and in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship.


At the time that I am introducing the reins back into my training, a forward response to my legs is still evolving and not yet established. For this reason, I don’t want to muddy the meaning of my legs to a horse at this time. I don’t want my horse to think the legs mean more ‘forward’ sometimes, and more ‘backward’ at other times, which is often the result when a rider uses rein and leg aids simultaneously when asking for a rein back. This would be sending contradictory signals to my horse at a stage that it is not yet ready to understand. So when I require a more active backup, I apply a stronger feel on the reins.  If I have done my job well, the life in my horse’s back will parallel the strength of feel in my reins.


Later, when my horse is comfortable and clear about the most basic role of my legs and reins, I will introduce the concept that my legs can both evoke more energy (irrespective of the direction) and also be directional (by triggering ideas of backward and lateral movement). Eventually, this can be extended to riding a horse without reins.


I hope this helps clear up some of my thoughts that people at clinics have been asking about lately. Like most things in training, the concepts of teaching a horse are simple. But it is important that refinement of the rein back movement is approached slowly and stands on the shoulders of well-established basics. 


Photo: Betsy is learning to yield back in response to a feel of the reins. Unfortunately, Betsy fell at a hurdle, broke a leg and we had to put her down!